After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to. Why, I hear you ask? Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.
Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think. And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual member of the public. But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?
Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered. But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not. This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way. Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future. There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.
And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life. Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility. Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman. For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.
Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents. For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election. That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised. If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views. Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …